Hey, I'm Chelsea.

I'm a Chicago wedding photographer and videographer who's on a mission to take the stress out of wedding planning, one anecdote, gif, and movie
quote at a time.

While researching wedding photographer packages, especially in the Chicago area, you’ve probably noticed how they all revolve around one thing: time ⏳.

Some packages are hourly. Others are unlimited (also called “full day”). Either way, knowing your wedding photography timeline is the key to booking the right package for your wedding.

An experienced wedding photographer will help build a rough timeline with you before you book. But if you want to be ahead of the game, here’s a peek at the 5 steps I use to create personalized wedding photography timelines for couples.

Wedding party going in for group hug

How to build a wedding photography timeline

1. Start with the ceremony

The ceremony start time is the event your entire wedding photography timeline centers around.

So write down what time your ceremony starts—like *really* starts, not the time you’ll tell your always-late family members.

Then, subtract 30 minutes. This is when I recommend couples are completely done with photos and tucked away at the ceremony site.

This gives you time to freshen up while guests arrive and gives your photo/video team time to set up for the ceremony. Even if you don’t care about guests seeing you before the ceremony, it keeps mingling to a minimum so everything starts on time.

So if your ceremony starts at 5 PM, you should be at the venue and tucked away by 4:30 PM.

2. Decide on a first look

Now that we know what time you have to be at the ceremony site, we have to figure out what you want to do before the ceremony.

The biggest determining factor is whether or not you want to have a first look.

Not sure if a first look is for you? Check out why I recommend it.

This will decide when wedding photos happen and will determine when everyone needs to be dressed.

If you’re doing a first look…

If you’re having a first look, I recommend 2 hours of photo time.

Don’t panic—this isn’t 2 straight hours of smiling at the camera. That sounds horrible (even to a wedding photographer). These two hours factor in the first look and traveling between photo locations. This is especially important for downtown Chicago weddings.

So, going off that earlier ceremony start time of 5 PM, we’d do the first look at 2:30 PM—2 hours before you arrive at the ceremony site.

If you’re not doing a first look…

If you want to save the first look for the aisle, I strongly recommend taking separate wedding party photos before the ceremony. This includes immediate family photos with your parents + siblings.

This helps cut down on photo time after the ceremony—you only need to take a few big group photos—and gives you a chance to have photos at a few locations.

Alternatively, going off the earlier ceremony start time of 5 PM, I’d have both sides do simultaneous group photos at 2:30 PM.

3. Kick the day off right

Getting ready photos are often overlooked, and I get it. Guys don’t want to get ready until the last minute and girls don’t want photos with their hair half-done.

And, because of this, couples think they can cram 2 hours’ worth of moments into 30 minutes. But the last thing you want is to start the day off feeling rushed.

Make sure to pad in plenty of time so candid moments can unfold and you get the kind of stylized detail photos you’ve been collecting on Pinterest.

Candid Photos

By your wedding day, you’ll be a pro in front of the camera. Between engagement sessions and meetings, we’ll be old friends. But your parents and wedding party? They haven’t had that warm-up period—and it shows on camera.

If I had a dollar for every time a parent or bridesmaid’s *apologized* for being “in my way”.

Getting ready is a chance for me to chat with your loved ones and make them feel at ease. It’s how they stop hiding in the corners of the room and aren’t afraid to be themselves in front of the camera.

So if you want photos of your mom wiping away tears without embarrassment or your best friends twerking with you in the makeup chair to your favorite song, make sure to have enough getting ready coverage so they get comfortable.

Set aside 30 minutes of dedicated candid photo time (separate from detail photo time below).

Detail Photos

If you’re incorporating personalized details into your wedding—like custom invitations, personalized cufflinks, and heirloom jewelry—you may want stylized photos. If this is the case, make sure to set aside enough time for your photographer to do the details justice.

I recommend at least 30 minutes for detail photos, depending on how many details you have.

Get Dressed

Always set aside at least 30 minutes for getting dressed. It sounds like a lot of extra time, but you want to add padding so that you can soak up the moment, do last-minute touch-ups, and not feel rushed.

4. Don’t rush dinner

Now that we’ve figured out the start time, let’s skip back to the reception to figure out the end time.

After your ceremony ends, events are pretty straightforward. You’ve got your cocktail hour, which will be filled with any leftover photos + cocktails, and then dinner.

A lot happens during dinner, and my main advice is just to soak up as much as possible. Make sure you have time to mingle with guests, listen to toasts, and (most importantly) eat.

Say your 5 PM ceremony is 30 minutes long. That would put your cocktail hour from 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM, with dinner starting at either 6:30 PM or 7:00 PM (depending on how quickly your guest count can move from the cocktail hour area to their seats).

Dinner will last about 1.5 hours (assuming everyone giving their toasts keeps it under 10 minutes), meaning formal dances will start at either 8:00 PM or 8:30 PM.

Plan for dinner lasting roughly 1.5 hours (assuming everyone giving their toasts keeps it under 10 minutes. If toasts go longer, dinner service could be delayed).

5. Dance the night away

When it comes to wrapping up coverage, I recommend doing so at least one hour after your formal dances, like parent dances, are scheduled. That way you get plenty of dance floor photos, but you also have built-in padding just in case things run late.

If you’re the kind of couple that loves to party and are most excited for the reception, brainstorm any important moments and traditions happening and decide if you want them on camera—I’m more than happy to stay ’til midnight if it means photographing your college friends rocking colorful wigs or interpretive dancing to “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”.

If you’re excited for party photos, budget for at least 1 hour of dance floor coverage.

Now let’s take those 5 steps and whip up a sample wedding photography timeline ⬇️

Sample 8-Hour Wedding Photography Timeline

With First Look

1:00 PM — Start Photography Coverage

2:30 PM — First Look + Wedding Party Photos

4:30 PM — Arrive at Venue

5:00 PM — Ceremony

5:30 PM — Family Photos + Cocktail Hour

6:30 PM — Dinner + Toasts

8:00 PM – Dancing

9:00 PM — End Photography Coverage

Without First Look

1:30 PM — Start Photography Coverage

3:00 PM — Separate Wedding Party + Family Photos

4:30 PM — Arrive at Venue

5:00 PM — Ceremony

5:30 PM — Combined Family Photos + Wedding Party Photos // Extended Cocktail Hour

7:00 PM — Dinner + Toasts

8:30 PM — Dancing

9:30 PM — End Photography Coverage

Note: These sample timelines are starting points. Every timeline should be tweaked to personal preference. These are the bare bones so that things don’t feel rushed. The real magic starts to happen when you add personal touches and make the timeline feel more like you.

Want more wedding photography timeline samples?

If you’re still blanking on how to piece together your perfect timeline, download my free timeline guide below. Not only does it go over these 5 steps one more time (because they’re *that* important), but it gives you more sample timelines + example photos so you don’t have to start completely from scratch.

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A wedding photography and videography studio for personality-packed couples who want to remember the way they tore it up on the dance floor just as much as the way it felt to say “I do”.